Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 27 April 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Situation in Myanmar: Discussion with Dr. Mary C. Murphy
On behalf of the committee, it gives me pleasure to welcome Dr. Mary Murphy, senior lecturer in the department of government and politics, University College Cork. I thank her for writing to the committee in February regarding her experience, expertise as senior lecturer in politics at UCC and, indeed, in the context of her own research where she has been a lead author on two research reports examining the role, function and practice of members of parliament in Myanmar between 2015 and 2020. As part of her work, she visited the parliament in Myanmar on a number of different occasions. I am very pleased that she has shared the research she had led on the parliamentary system and survey of the members of the members of parliament in Myanmar. She is now going to share her experience and expertise with us, and to inform us of matters. Indeed, we are all shocked to see on a daily basis the images of the sanctions, cruelty and suffering inflicted on civil society in Myanmar by a military regime, in a country that has succeeded in establishing, through difficult challenges, a parliamentary democracy, albeit a fragile democracy but one that has been progressing in a strict way over recent years. We look forward to hearing from Dr. Murphy. We also look forward to discussing the options for our committee to assist in highlighting the issues and exhorting the international community to respond to the instability in Myanmar.
The committee is being broadcast from the Dáil Chamber. I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Any statements that may be potentially defamatory in regard to an identifiable person or entity will result in a direction that the remarks be discontinued. We all will comply with such direction, as we always do in the committee.
For witnesses attending remotely from outside of the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege. As such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses who may be physically present. Witnesses from outside the jurisdiction are advised that they need to be mindful of domestic law, from which they are joining us, and how it may apply to the evidence given and statements made.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that we should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make the person in any way identifiable. Members are only allowed to participate in the meeting if they are physically located within the confines of the Leinster House complex. For anyone watching online, some Oireachtas Members and witnesses are accessing the meeting remotely. Due to the unprecedented circumstances and the large number of people attending the meeting remotely I seek forbearance should technical issues arise as they already have in terms of our initial engagement with Dr. Murphy.
Again, I welcome Dr. Murphy and invite her to make her opening statement, following which we will proceed to observations, questions, queries and brief statements. Members will be conscious we must stick to the time allocated to us this afternoon for our engagement.
Dr. Mary C. Murphy:
I thank the Chairman and all of the members of the committee for the opportunity to discuss the situation in Myanmar. I am very pleased to engage with the committee. I welcome its interest in learning more about the situation and considering what role Ireland might play in responding to the crisis.
Before I begin, I apologise for the earlier technical issue and the fault was on my end. I also apologise that members cannot see me as I have had to enter the meeting using a web browser as opposed to the Teams App.
As the members will be aware, the military coup in Myanmar has been ongoing since 1 February 2021. There are few signs of a peaceful return to civilian rule in the short term. The seriousness of the crisis should not be underestimated. Further violence is almost assured. It will likely be accompanied by economic collapse and a serious humanitarian crisis. The repercussions of such developments are grave and include geopolitical instability in the region. The tragedy of the situation is all the more poignant given that Myanmar and its people had experienced newfound freedoms as the democratisation process proceeded since about 2011.
Myanmar, as members will be aware, is a diverse and complex country. Myanmar gained independence in 1948 but it was subject to an oppressive military junta from 1962 until 2011 when a gradual return to civilian rule began to proceed. Throughout that period, Myanmar had to deal with the longest running civil war in the world. Ongoing since 1948 and based on a very complex mix of conflicts between the State and ethnic groups, including non-State actors and a military that has, over decades, infiltrated both the State and the economy in very deep ways.
The 2008 constitution and free elections in 2015 signalled the beginnings of a democratisation process. However, on 1 February this year, the day the newly elected Myanmar parliament was scheduled to meet for the first time following the November 2020 election, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized control and declared a year-long state of emergency with a stated intention to hold new elections at the end of that period.
The coup followed the intensification of tensions between the military and the civilian government which crystallised further after the November elections. The National League for Democracy, NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide. The military and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, USDP, disputed the election result, claiming widespread fraud and calling for a rerun of the election. In the aftermath of that coup, leaders of the NLD, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have been detained and imprisoned and are facing various charges.
I highlight in particular that there has been widespread public opposition to the coup which catalysed into an extraordinary civil disobedience movement spearheaded by Myanmar professionals, including doctors, bankers, teachers, factory workers, civil servants, transport staff, and many other workers across the country. Hundreds of thousands of workers from these sectors are striking and have been doing so for months. They aim to stifle the economy, thereby cutting off the military’s sources of revenue and forcing an end to the coup.
We have seen the mass mobilisation of young people in Myanmar. This cohort is playing a critical role in opposing the coup. I emphasise the extent to which young people, in particular, are resolute in their resistance to military rule in Myanmar and have shown themselves willing to make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure the return of freedom and democracy.
The political response has included the formation of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, CRPH, by a number of elected NLD MPs in exile. The committee comprises 17 members. Importantly, it includes two elected MPs from ethnic parties. It seeks to conduct parliamentary affairs as per its electoral mandate in November. The junta has charged 17 members of the CRPH with incitement and has threatened anyone who contacts them with seven years' imprisonment.
On 31 March this year, the CRPH declared the abolishment of the 2008 constitution and announced a new interim constitution, the Federal Democracy Charter. Two weeks later, the CRPH formed a national unity government that brought Aung San Suu Kyi back into her previous role as State Counsellor. The national unity government includes cabinet members drawn from both the NLD and, critically, the ethnic parties, all of whom are currently in hiding or outside the country. They are seeking international recognition as the legitimate government of Myanmar. The junta has declared the national unity government unlawful.
The military has responded forcefully to repress all political and civil opposition in Myanmar. It has imposed martial law in parts of the country, introduced curfews and altered laws to prevent mass mobilisation and undermine the civil disobedience movement. According to UN sources, more than 700 civilians, including children, have been killed by the military since the coup began. Many more have been seriously injured. There are more than 3,000 in detention, and tens of thousands in the ethnic states, in particular, have been displaced as villages have been targeted and bombed by the military. In the larger cities, we have seen increased movement out to rural areas to escape the crackdowns.
I must stress the military’s tactics in this regard are increasingly indiscriminate, systematically attacking neighbourhoods, randomly discharging weapons into homes, and bombing and shelling villages in ethnic areas. The UN has reported the use of heavy artillery against civilians. There are also reports of the military targeting medical professionals with arrest and preventing those who need medical treatment from receiving it.
In addition to this deteriorating human rights crisis, a humanitarian crisis is looming in Myanmar. Many citizens have lost their jobs amid the turmoil and can no longer afford to support basic needs. The World Food Programme has warned of food insecurity in the short term. Communication systems have been severely disrupted. Myanmar’s economic situation is also deteriorating. There will be an expected 10% contraction, at least, in 2021. A serious refugee crisis cannot be discounted.
The EU and the US have imposed some sanctions on Myanmar, including financial sanctions and travel bans on key military personnel. The US has also applied a series of sanctions, including financial sanctions, in respect of the military’s two major conglomerates.
At an Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, summit meeting on 24 April 2021, a five-point consensus on the situation in Myanmar was agreed, calling for the immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among parties, a mediation role for the special ASEAN envoy to be appointed, provision of humanitarian assistance and access to Myanmar for the ASEAN envoy. Although this five-point consensus is welcome, there are issues which remain unaddressed. ASEAN did not call for the release of political prisoners. There are no explicit plans for dialogue with the national unity government and no clear timeframe for actions.
The seriousness of the crisis in Myanmar should not be underestimated. If the situation continues to escalate, and the signs are that it is escalating, the country risks becoming a failed state in the heart of Asia. The consequences of this are severe and include unconscionable human suffering, economic and social devastation, a likely refugee and humanitarian crisis, and geopolitical instability in the region.
In terms of how the Oireachtas and the Irish Government can play a role in opposing the military coup and supporting democratic forces in Myanmar, there are a series of actions that might be considered. First is encouraging and supporting a robust leadership role for ASEAN, which has a critically important role to play in addressing the crisis in Myanmar. There is also capacity for Ireland to use its position on the UN Security Council and in the General Assembly and its network of embassies across Asia to encourage ASEAN and individual countries in the region to leverage their efforts and influence to prevent the situation from deteriorating. It would be important for countries to support and endorse the work of both the UN special envoy to Myanmar and the ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar. Sanctions must be maintained and there should be a push for additional targeted sanctions against military-run businesses and industries.
There is a role for the Oireachtas to play in publicly acknowledging the CRPH and the national unity government. There is capacity to push for the European Union to strengthen its response to the situation in Myanmar. Ongoing support for an international arms embargo is similarly important. The Oireachtas may consider applying pressure to leading gas and oil companies operating in Myanmar to temporarily stop giving taxes and other pipeline-related payments to the military regime and the conglomerates it dominates. There is capacity to engage with tech companies to protect, improve and facilitate ongoing access to communication facilities in Myanmar and to encourage the fashion industry, which supports a large garment industry in Myanmar, to speak out much more forcefully against the military coup.
The Oireachtas and the committee may wish to consider calling additional witnesses to share evidence, including, for example, members of the CRPH in Myanmar, former ambassadors, business interests in Myanmar, and UN personnel. The Oireachtas can play a role in defending the human rights of elected MPs in Myanmar by raising the crisis there with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU, which has its 142nd assembly upcoming in May this year. Finally, the fact of this session sends a signal to Myanmar and helps support public morale among Myanmar protestors and citizens by helping to maintain an international focus on what is happening in Myanmar and by maintaining sustained, strong and vocal opposition to the military coup.
I thank Dr. Murphy for her presentation.
This committee regards it as most important that we have an opportunity to discuss the unacceptable situation in Myanmar. On a daily basis the army is quelling anything it regards as dissent. Protesters are being beaten and arrested and, in some cases, killed on a daily basis. Of course, this is against the background of the general strike which has seen public services for civil society and the people of Myanmar coming to an almost complete halt.
I propose to revert to members of the committee now for their questions. I will take members in groups of three and then ask Dr. Murphy to respond. I thank her for her recommendations, many of which seem eminently reasonable and which, after this meeting, we will be in a position to give further consideration. Deputy Brady is first.
I welcome Dr. Murphy and thank her for her opening statement. I have been following the situation in Myanmar closely over the last few months. Indeed, over the last few years any time that Myanmar has been in the news it has been, unfortunately, in connection with matters related to genocide and acts against citizens by the military junta. I am really concerned about the situation there. Dr. Murphy has spoken quite graphically to all of our concerns and I thank her for opening statement. Recently I have been speaking to a number of people who worked previously with NGOs on the ground in Myanmar. They are very concerned about the situation there and about some of their colleagues who are still on the ground in Myanmar and who are afraid to speak out because of the potential repercussions. Unfortunately, what we are seeing and hearing on the television news is probably only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is actually happening on the ground. I thank Dr. Murphy for highlighting the situation there.
Myanmar has been in difficulty since it gained independence from the British in 1948 and what we are seeing now is part of the legacy of the colonisation of south east Asia and other parts of the world by various countries. I have referred to acts of genocide that have happened in Myanmar, the most recent being those perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslim population in 2017. This led the councillors of Dublin City Council to withdraw the Freedom of the City which was conferred on Aung San Suu Kyi. Concerns have existed for some time about the actions of the Myanmar Government in dealing with some ethnic minorities and what is being done now by the military junta must be condemned.
Dr. Murphy mentioned the ASEAN talks and the agreement that has been reached but yesterday the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Karen National Union, KNU, launched an attack in the southern part of Myanmar. Concern has been expressed that this attack will give the junta an excuse to back out of the tentative agreement that is in place at present. The junta has said that it will focus on quelling any military revolt. The KNU has a long history of fighting for self-determination. The make-up of Myanmar is complex, with so many different ethnic groups within the country. Does Dr. Murphy share the concern of others about the implications of the actions of the Karen National Liberation Army?
My brother lives in Thailand and has told me that huge numbers of refugees have fled Myanmar and crossed into Thailand. This is creating real difficulties in the context of Covid and the mass movement of people. There have been significant spikes in case numbers. Does Dr. Murphy have any information regarding Covid in Myanmar? We have all seen what is happening in India but I am interested to learn about the situation in Myanmar vis-à-visCovid-19. As I said, there has been a spike in the number of cases as a result of people fleeing persecution and crossing the Thai border. This has obviously created a humanitarian crisis and a crisis in terms of the spread of Covid.
Again I thank Dr. Murphy and hope she will be able to answer some of my questions.
I join colleagues in thanking Dr. Murphy for speaking to us today and for her passionate interest in this area. I glanced through her research project on the parliament, which is so sad. At the time of her research, it looked as if things would be so different. She met what seemed to be a very enthusiastic set of parliamentarians who wanted to do their job better. As has been said by the Chairman and Deputy Brady, the images on television of the unfolding humanitarian crisis are so distressing. We know that at least 720 people have been killed and more than 3,000 imprisoned. We also know a little of the barbarity that exists in the prisons and the overall picture is very distressing. It is good that we are addressing these issues here today.
Am I correct in assuming, in terms of geopolitics, that the military junta is being supported by China and to a lesser degree by Russia? Is that why the ASEAN response did not include releasing prisoners and was somewhat muted? Is there a connection there? Would it be fair to say that we in the West, including the USA, are supporting the return of the National Unity Government, NUG, and that China is supporting the military junta? Is that a valid assessment and if so, what are the implications of that? If it is not valid, I would be interested in hearing more from Dr. Murphy. It is very interesting to see that the ASEAN agreement fell short of a full settlement or was that done on a tactical basis to try to achieve some moderate solution initially? I presume Dr. Murphy is happy with what we are doing within the UN Security Council. The briefing documentation would suggest that we are very active at the Security Council on this question, as we should be. I presume Dr. Murphy is happy in that regard.
I understand from the briefing material that in excess of €1 million was given directly in aid to Myanmar. What is Dr. Murphy's view of the entire humanitarian effort? I presume it is never good enough but is she satisfied that the aid is getting to its intended target or is the junta making efforts to thwart that? Dr. Murphy's recommendations to us with regard to the embassies are eminently sensible and, as the Chairman said, we will discuss them further as a committee. I thank Dr. Murphy very much.
I welcome Dr. Murphy to our meeting today and thank her for her time and her work on this very important issue. We know that historically the military has been extraordinarily powerful there. There are almost 500,000 members of the military. Dr. Murphy referred to the need for an international arms embargo. Following on from Senator Joe O'Reilly's question in which he suggested that the military in Myanmar was getting support from other countries, could Dr. Murphy say who has supported it in the past with the arms it has? I noted on some television programmes recently that it has quite a powerful set of hardware. For it to work, an arms embargo would have to be universal and include all countries. Given that it has such an arsenal, I wonder what its impact would be.
Deputy Brady asked about Covid. With the mass gathering happening at the moment, and with no testing or treatment, it is obviously a huge concern also. It could spread among the general population. I noted that many of the doctors in the hospitals are refusing to co-operate with the military junta at the moment and the healthcare system has more or less collapsed. Perhaps Dr. Murphy would comment on that.
The situation of refugees going to other countries such as to India, China, Laos and Thailand and the Rohingya refugees going to Bangladesh is of huge concern. Dr. Murphy mentioned more than once her concerns regarding this complex spreading to other jurisdictions and destabilising the general area. Will she say a little bit more about this? What are her concerns about this and how might it happen? We would all agree with the responses Dr. Murphy suggested we make in our role on the UN Security Council and in the European Union, and that maybe we should support the Government and the Minister in what he is doing in that regard.
Reference was made to the fashion industry, which Dr. Murphy said is quite important to that region. What other industries are there underpinning Myanmar's economy? I am aware it has oil, gas, and a lot of renewable energy. Will Dr. Murphy comment on that?
The situation is a huge concern. There are very few places in the world where this kind of thing is happening at the moment, and to this extent. I know there are wars elsewhere. Syria was similar to this and we saw what happened there. This is very worrying. I thank Dr. Murphy for being here and for the work she is doing.
Dr. Mary C. Murphy:
I thank the Chairman, Deputy Flanagan. I thank all the members for their questions and, in particular, for their interest and concern. Let me start with Deputy Brady's questions. I would 100% reiterate and underline the way in which the Deputy depicted the sinister nature of the atmosphere in Myanmar right now. The actions of the military have been appalling in the extreme. I mentioned just some of them. There are all sorts of allegations against the military in how it has been treating its own citizens during this period. It is the indiscriminate nature of the violence that is really adding to the sinister nature of society in Myanmar right now.
On the question of information, the Deputy makes an important point. I do not think all the information is getting out. Communications systems have been limited. The Internet is not available during the night. Access to the Internet is patchy and completely non-existent in some parts of the Myanmar. In this situation, information is absolutely critical to the opposition, in particular. It is critical to allow it to organise and to protest, and to facilitate the coming together of protesters. It is also critical to allow the protesters and the opposition movements to communicate with the rest of the world and to give a true sense of what precisely is happening on the ground in Myanmar. The international community is not quite getting a full picture at the moment because of the ways in which the military has been limiting communications systems.
I refer back to one of the points I made in my recommendations for ways in which the committee and the Oireachtas could engage with the tech community and tech companies. I am aware there are moves among many in Myanmar and among those who are following the situation to connect with Elon Musk's Starlink project. This is important because the Starlink project tests low-orbit satellite Internet provision in different parts of the world. What is critical about this facility is that it offers access to an open web and allows the user to bypass a state's Internet controls. There is enormous optimism about the way in which these technological developments have the potential to disrupt authoritarian regimes such as the military coup we are seeing in Myanmar right now. It means that one can effectively cut off the extent to which a regime can control and dominate information, because a state simply cannot regulate this particular service. It also means that Internet access can be offered in the most remote areas of the planet, and parts of Myanmar fit that category. China and Russia are opposed to this form of technology, but many countries across the West are enthusiastic about the way it can help to assist with democratisation processes, and the provision of information freely and fairly around the world.
The Rohingya crisis has been a particularly appalling aspect of what has been happening in Myanmar in recent years. The Rohingya community is concentrated mainly in Rakhine state in Myanmar. Since the beginning of the military coup there appears to be some latent empathy emerging for the Rohingya community more broadly across society in Myanmar, across the ethnic groups and across the main Burmese ethnic population, which accounts for some two thirds of the population. It has been interesting to watch this. Given all they have experienced since 1 February, the ordinary citizen in Myanmar seems to be developing a degree of empathy for the way in which the Rohingya were treated by the Myanmar since 2017.
On the other ethnic groups, reference was made to the Karen National Liberation Army, KNLA, which has a very long history of fighting for self-determination against the military. Many of the ethnic groups, not just the KNLA, are seeing an opportunity during this period of instability for them to proceed with their attacks against the military and to push even further for some of their political and constitutional goals. We are also seeing some young people, especially in and around urban areas, now choosing to align somewhat with some of these ethnic groups, and choosing to contribute to the military effort to defeat the military coup itself.
Again, it has been quite interesting in the period since the coup began on 1 February 2021, to see some degree of unity among disparate groups in Myanmar that had previously been opposed to each other. They are now, effectively, all united against a single force, which is the military coup. There is some capacity for the international community and for national institutions such as the Houses of the Oireachtas, to assist the ethnic groups, to assist the civil disobedience movement, to offer them some degree of capacity building and to help them to stabilise the partnerships that are emerging between these groups in their attempts to defeat the military coup.
We are seeing the beginnings of a refugee crisis, which Deputy Brady also mentioned. With regard to those countries that border Myanmar that are seeing an influx of refugees at the moment, the Oireachtas and governments around the world might encourage those states to consider granting asylum to people who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
Covid-19 is a very serious issue in Myanmar right now. The Covid-19 crisis had caused enormous disruption up to this point but now there is the near collapse of the health system and the complete absence of testing since 1 February.
That protests groups have been gathering in such large numbers makes it likely that the Covid-19 crisis will deteriorate even further. The fear is that as the refugees move across borders, we will see an intensification of that problem and a degree of hostility between refugees and populations in those countries. There is an enormous amount to be aware of here and it is very hard to know precisely the extent to which Covid-19 is problematic simply because of a lack of information and any process of testing right now.
I thank Senator Joe O'Reilly for his comments and his kind words about the two reports with which I was involved. I feel particularly saddened reading those reports again and reflecting on those brief periods I spent in Myanmar. It was clear the democratisation was proceeding and there were certainly challenges and difficulties. On the whole there was an atmosphere of enthusiasm and optimism. There was a clear preference for a future based on democratic principles. That was absolutely self-evident, despite the challenges and difficulties. It is an enormous tragedy to see the way in which there has been a rolling back of all that progress over a period of ten years or so.
With regard to the geopolitical position, there was mention of China. This is a complex matter in itself. As the committee is aware, China blocked the UN Security Council condemnation of the coup but has, nevertheless, backed calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a return to democratic norms in Myanmar. China has a policy of non-intervention in cases like this. It is fair to suggest China has not lent decisive support to the military in Myanmar. China's key and overriding interest is to maintain stability in Myanmar. To a certain extent, maintaining stability, whether in the context of military or civilian rule, is the priority.
Relations between the National League for Democracy and China were relatively harmonious in the period before the coup and there has traditionally been some wariness of China in the national capital, Nay Pyi Taw, about the role China may have in Myanmar as it proceeds through the democratisation process. China is very important to Myanmar in that it is its biggest trading partner and it is also one of the largest sources of inward investment. Approximately 1 million tourists from China visit Myanmar every year. China, therefore, has an important role to play. Myanmar is also important to China in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. There are more than 30 bilateral agreements between China and Myanmar, including everything from the development of railway systems to deep sea port projects. This is important to Beijing because it provides an alternative route for energy imports. Aside from this there continues to be a degree of wariness in Myanmar about Chinese intentions. They fear this may be costly for Myanmar and they also fear that some of these facilities may be put to military use in future.
China's interest in stability is sort of based on its economic interests in Myanmar, or it is at least linked to them. I tentatively suggest that China would see a civilian government in Myanmar as offering a greater prospect for stability than a military-led Myanmar. It is not simply a case of China supporting Myanmar without there being any restrictions or nuance in that respect. It is a complex relationship and China's approach to this has not been decisively supportive of the military. It is important to note that.
With regard to the perspective of the United States and the West more generally, the condemnation of the coup has been wholesale and quite vociferous. I mention the UK in this context as well as it has been quite outspoken. There are some difficulties for the US, the West and Britain. Recognising the legitimacy of the National Unity Government is challenging because that government is completely disparate now; some of the members are in exile but most are hiding and they are not necessarily in contact with each other. They do not have any access to the resources of the state. There are difficulties.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, has been playing a very delicate role in trying to navigate this terrain. It invited the leader of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, to the ASEAN summit last Saturday but it did not invite representatives from the National Unity Government. There is some dismay in Myanmar that ASEAN appears to be prioritising the military coup in that context. However, it is more nuanced, challenging and sensitive than that. ASEAN is trying to create a scenario and conditions whereby it can draw the military into longer-term negotiations aimed at addressing the situation and moving back to the democratisation process as it has been experienced. There are enormous challenges and major sensitivities and none is simplistic. All of them pose problems or difficulties for those trying to navigate the area.
Ireland has by all means been speaking out on this very well. Its position on the UN Security Council means it has some capacity to engage other members on a bilateral basis, particularly other countries in the region, including Vietnam, for example. Norway is also on the UN Security Council now and it has been quite outspoken. It has an embassy in Myanmar. There is capacity for all that to be developed and I have no doubt Ireland's contribution to the UN Security Council is ongoing.
Humanitarian aid to Myanmar is something promised by the ASEAN summit. We must be very careful about who would distribute this aid and how it would filter into Myanmar. It is fair to say that if the military was given access to that aid and asked to distribute it, the civil disobedience movement would refuse to accept that humanitarian aid. That speaks to the resilience and resoluteness of the civil disobedience movement, so care must be taken on how aid is distributed in Myanmar and who is given responsibility for that.
I thank Deputy Stanton for his questions. He mentioned the international arms embargo and the access to weaponry or defence resources that the military in Myanmar has. It has very substantial reserves of power in that context. In particular, it has very strong defence links with Russia, with defence contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The committee is aware that Russia is another member of the UN Security Council that did not support a statement condemning the coup earlier this year. Russia supplies arms and equipment to Myanmar. It sees the coup as a domestic matter and it also has a policy of non-intervention in these cases. Russia is an important player in facilitating what is happening in Myanmar.
The only different point I could make is that an international arms embargo also has an impact on the ethnic groups and the emergence of what has been called an embryonic federal army that aims to take on the military in Myanmar. An arms embargo would also affect those groups and there must be an awareness of that.
Deputy Stanton also asked about Covid-19 and I repeat the points I have made. The healthcare system in Myanmar is close to collapse. There is no testing capacity and there has been mass mobilisation of people but we do not have adequate information or data on the extent of Covid-19's spread. We can only assume it is spreading.
That causes all sorts of problems within Myanmar, where there is no functioning healthcare system to deal with the fallout and, in addition, the movement of refugees across borders creates its own difficulties in the wider region.
In terms of destabilisation in the area and the broader geopolitical concerns, the committee will be aware that Myanmar borders not just China but also India, Thailand, Laos and other countries in the region. There are concerns about conflicts on the borders, particularly if the ethnic groups, many of which are confined to border areas, step up their aggression against the military. There are fears that conflict would spill over into other countries. There are also concerns about the way in which a substantial humanitarian and refugee crisis may put pressures on neighbouring states. There are already hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees located in Bangladesh and adding to those numbers in any way, shape or form has the potential to destabilise the area.
There are important points to be made about the economic situation in Myanmar, as Deputy Stanton mentioned. Oil and gas are two important resources in Myanmar and this speaks to one of the recommendations I made in the discussion paper I submitted to the committee. There are companies such as the US company Chevron with substantial sway and considerable interests in Myanmar. For decades, Chevron has been working there through a subsidiary called Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. This is a State-owned company that is now controlled by the military junta and probably represents the largest source of funding for the military at the moment. That company runs a massive gas pipeline that has also been linked, in the past, to alleged human rights abuses. Myanmar's army has been accused of permitting those abuses, including rape and murder, while providing security for the pipeline.
Chevron and the French company, Total, transport natural gas from the Andaman Sea to Yangon, Myanmar's most populated city, and to Thailand. These two companies have substantial stakes in these particular projects. They have paid hundreds of millions of US dollars in recent years to this State-owned company, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, which is now, effectively, run by the military. There have been international calls for these companies not to pay the many taxes and production rights they owe to this particular State-owned company and to instead put those taxes and production rights into escrow accounts to safeguard those resources until such time as there is a return to democratic rule in Myanmar. There is a strong sense among many in Myanmar that stopping the oil and gas money is a vital way of assisting the democratic struggle there.
I will say a few words about the fashion industry. There has been rapid growth in the garment sector in Myanmar, concentrated particularly around Yangon. Major brands and retailers use the facilities around the city and source materials from Myanmar, including Adidas, H&M, Zara, Primark, which has some interest, Samsonite and Benetton. We have seen a big increase in exports to the European Union since approximately 2011, when the economy began to liberalise and the democratic system began to take shape. Many of those companies have severed their links with Myanmar in the aftermath of the coup. There are, obviously, fears about disruption but there are also fears about reputational damage. The issue is that this has left many in Myanmar without jobs and income. It also critically threatens to undermine the advances in worker conditions which had come on the back of these companies taking an interest in Myanmar. The industry has, of course, also been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the ground in Myanmar, the civil disobedience movement has been very critical of the fashion industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people, for the way in which companies have been so tepid in their condemnation of the coup. The military has also targeted the garment district because many of the workers there live in hostels and dormitories that are relatively easily targeted. Workers want the fashion industry to make it clear that the suspension of their business in Myanmar is until such time as a democratic government is restored. They want the fashion companies to speak up and to defend their interests because many of these workers have been fired for attending protests. Many have been locked into their factories to prevent them attending protests. Limiting the ability of the military in this context and speaking out against the military would be a considerable moral boost for the protestors in Myanmar. The garment sector predominantly employs women in Myanmar. They are a cohort of society that has traditionally encountered a higher degree of discrimination relative to their male colleagues and counterparts.
I hope I have addressed the bulk of the Deputy's questions.
I thank Dr. Murphy for her time, her opening statement and the documents she passed on. It made for difficult reading and hearing.
I want to go back to the area of humanitarian aid. I understand there are some aid workers on the ground at the moment. I fully take on board Dr. Murphy's point about military interaction with any further aid that could be delivered into the region. Does she have any more information on the capabilities of the humanitarian workers in Myanmar at the moment? What resources do they have? What is their availability to meet increasing demand as more and more people rely on them?
I am referring specifically to an article in today's edition of The Irish Timesthat states, "Up to 25,000 villagers have fled their homes and are hiding in jungles and caves" close to the Thai border. It is critical that there is unhindered and free access for humanitarian workers. This committee has heard of difficulties in other areas and the impact that has on delivering aid. What do we know about what is there? Do we know what their capabilities are, in terms of what we are expecting to be increasing numbers reliant on them?
Dr. Murphy referred to the fact that the medical system, as such, has faced significant difficulties but is there any access to medical care available, particularly, say, to the likes of children, pregnant women or those who may be suffering from malnutrition in the area?
How many members of the National League for Democracy are detained or in prison? Where are those members who are not imprisoned? What interaction are they having with the countries that surround the area? If we are now looking at a potential refugee crisis coming from this area, what is the capability of the neighbouring countries to take in those individuals, even on a short-term basis, to meet that immediate need? There is no doubt in my mind that Ireland and the EU need to work with the countries in the region because we need to see an effective and sustainable outcome to this situation and, if it is in any way possible, to halt the ongoing escalation that is taking place.
I thank the Deputy. Before I revert to Dr. Murphy, there are a number of points or questions that I would also like to put to her. I acknowledge her frank engagement with us as a committee. We can follow up as early as Thursday on this. As she will be aware, Ireland fully supports the sanctions against the perpetrators of the coup and the economic entities that currently sustain the regime. We are, of course, conscious of the fact that EU sanctions and measures that predate the current coup were in place and were supported by Ireland.
It is important that we continue to strongly support the measures and perhaps a further expansion.
In this regard I was very struck by what Dr. Murphy said about the possible engagement with international tech companies, many of which are operating in Ireland. Obviously, communications from areas such as Myanmar and other areas which from time to time experience unlawful coups are vital. It is not a new adage that the truth is the first casualty of war. We need to ensure an adequate flow of information. The committee will investigate that further to see what can be done from an Irish perspective in respect of our engagement with the tech companies.
Dr. Murphy said that the response from ASEAN to the political situation fell short of calling for the release of political prisoners. I ask her to expand on the reasoning for that. In the past few weeks, I would have thought there was a possibility of suspending Myanmar from ASEAN. However, Dr. Murphy did not include that in her recommendations, nor did the European Union, which has referred to further engagement of ASEAN. What are the likely next steps in the engagement with ASEAN, given that she does not support suspension of Myanmar's membership?
Dr. Murphy responded to Deputy Stanton on the arms embargo, which is crucial notwithstanding the resources that are currently available to the directors of the coup. She specifically mentioned Russia. I would add India and China and ask her to respond to that.
Dr. Murphy recommended the engagement of Irish and international parliamentarians with politicians in Myanmar. However, the ambassador with a remit for Ireland would be the Myanmar ambassador to the UK, who, of course, was recalled some weeks ago. I note the Irish Government did not receive any notice of the recall and was not in any way informed. Therefore, we do not have any direct engagement through ambassadorial channels.
Dr. Murphy has experience of engaging directly with politicians there. Would it be fair to say that she has direct knowledge of the work practices and political philosophy of some of the current CRPH members? Would she recommend international democratic regimes contacting them? In that regard I ask her to comment on the national mandate of these CRPH members? What is their remit nationally across Myanmar? Is it a broadly based political organisation? As a consequence of that, what international recognition has there been of the CRPH?
When Dr. Murphy says that there might be further direct engagement, perhaps even towards the civil society, what is her view of there being civil society leadership? There have been calls internationally for the generals to speak directly to civil society. Does she believe that would be a meaningful engagement? What is the strength of the civil society leadership? This is something that will provide us with further engagement. I ask her to respond to Deputy Clarke and me on these issues.
Dr. Mary C. Murphy:
The Chairman and Deputy Clarke made a good point about humanitarian aid. Most of the NGOs and international development organisations have effectively left Myanmar and very few remain on the ground there. While there are some, they are very constrained in what they can do, how they can work and how visible they can be. They are under threat of being detained by the military. They need to be exceptionally cautious in their work which makes it even more challenging in assisting Myanmar in-country now.
The Deputy rightly made the point that doctors and healthcare system workers have effectively been on strike since the beginning of February. That has had very real and impactful consequences for the healthcare system in Myanmar. Doctors and medical personnel are trying to provide some form of care to those who need it urgently and in emergency situations, but they are doing that under the threat of extreme violence and the possibility of detention by the military and beyond that torture, imprisonment and perhaps even worse. The only medical facilities that are readily available are private hospitals. These have become exceptionally expensive in recent weeks and are beyond the means of the vast majority of Myanmar citizens.
There is some voluntary provision of care, but, as I said, that is becoming exceptionally difficult. Doctors, because of the role they have been playing in the civil disobedience movement, are being targeted by the military. They have had to act very cautiously in assisting people who may need medical assistance. This speaks to the way in which a humanitarian crisis is looming in Myanmar in the absence of that kind of medical care for all aspects of society, including children.
The Deputy asked about the National League for Democracy. I cannot give a precise figure for the people who are detained, in exile or in hiding, but many of them would be operating under the threat of being picked up by the military and detained. Much of the work and activity of the national league is being filtered through the CRPH, which is being led by 17 MPs, two of whom represent ethnic parties with 15 representing the NLD. They would be senior figures within the NLD movement. That is the focus for engaging with the political system or at least with the alternative political system in Myanmar now.
On the capability of neighbouring countries to accommodate refugees, I made the point that Bangladesh is already hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Thailand is also seeing some influx of refugees right now. Any influx of refugees in the large numbers that may materialise in the weeks and months to come will be exceptionally challenging for many of these countries, particularly countries like India which, as we know, is experiencing a severe Covid-19 crisis now. Underdeveloped countries in the region will also struggle to accommodate that kind of influx of refugees and all that goes with that in terms of the economic demands on society and the potential for instability in those border regions.
I agree there is an onus on the western world and the European Union to look at the way in which NGOs can be mobilised on the borders in Myanmar to deal with the likelihood of large numbers of refugees moving across the borders into other states in the neighbourhood.
I thank the Chairman for his comments, particularly in regard to the tech industry and other international companies which are operating in Myanmar, and ways in which the committee and its members may be able to engage with those companies in terms of encouraging them to be outspoken in their objections to the Myanmar military coup right now.
On the question of ASEAN, as we know, it met on Saturday and I made the point that it produced a five-point consensus plan, which must be welcomed, although it fell short in key respects. I need to put that in a degree of context. ASEAN is a ten-member body of states in the region. It is an intergovernmental body and the primary reason for its existence is to maintain peace and stability in the region. It represents 650 million citizens across the region. It is guided primarily by the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. That is a very important principle for ASEAN and, of course, it comes with challenges in that it means ASEAN has historically been accused of not always having a strategic vision in terms of dealing with crises like these.
There are also diverging priorities among the member states which make up ASEAN and, even on the issue of the Myanmar coup, there are very different perspectives. Countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have been more outspoken and have condemned the violence, and they have also expressly called for the release of political prisoners. That is not something we have seen in regard to other countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which have been much quieter in terms of responding to the coup. In fact, countries like Vietnam and even Thailand may be seen as being more sympathetic to the military in Myanmar than to the civilian government.
There are some strategic difficulties for ASEAN in terms of how it can deal with a crisis like this. It is not a body which can be compared with the European Union, which is far more developed and advanced in its capacities. That record of weakness in implementing decisions needs to be watched very carefully in the weeks ahead. ASEAN is to be applauded for having reached the five-point consensus plan and, in fact, for some observers the extent to which it was able to reach agreement, and we understand agreement was reached with the leader of the military coup on these five points, is to be applauded. However, the biggest challenge going forward is to ensure the five-point consensus plan is implemented and, even on the first point on the cessation of violence, there is no sign there has been a serious cessation of violence in Myanmar since Saturday, although that was something that was agreed to at the meeting.
There is a need for the international community to speak up and to pressurise ASEAN and to ensure accountability in terms of pursuing the five-point consensus plan. I did not mention expelling Myanmar from ASEAN, although some have mooted that as a possibility. I would see it differently. I think it is better for Myanmar to be talking to ASEAN than to be excluded from ASEAN at this time. ASEAN did invite the military to its summit but it did not invite the national unity government. As I mentioned, there is some concern on the ground in regard to why that happened.
Some individual countries in ASEAN are, I think, more open to being pressurised than others. Therefore, there is potential for the Oireachtas and the Irish Government to apply pressure in that particular respect.
On the issue of Irish parliamentarians and how they might engage in a real and meaningful way with what is happening in Myanmar, the CRPH has spoken to elected representatives in other jurisdictions and it had a meeting with four Members of the European Parliament. The European Union has not legitimately recognised the CRPH but, nevertheless, there appears to be a degree of empathy for what the CRPH is trying to do. It has a strong mandate in that all its members were all elected in November 2020 and they are collectively representing more than 400 elected MPs, including members of the National League for Democracy, NLD, and some ethnic groups. However, on a wider scale, there has been very little in the way of formal recognition for the CRPH and that is primarily a consequence of the fact the CRPH is an organisation in exile. Accessing the organisation is certainly possible but the capacity for those in the organisation to talk to each other or to have any control over the resources of the state is completely constrained at the moment because of the military coup. There are difficulties but I would certainly encourage the committee and the Oireachtas to engage with the CRPH, if that is something the committee is open to, and there are ways and means of facilitating that. It would be a very important message to send to the CRPH and would be very well received by the CRPH. It would symbolise an enormous commitment on the part of Ireland to what is happening in Myanmar right now and would give a very significant boost to public morale among the civil disobedience movement in particular.
The Chairman mentioned civil society leadership. This is a little more disparate and there are not necessarily any key leadership figures we can point to. Trade union leaders have played an important role in terms of mobilising the civil disobedience movement, but one of the key problems is that many of those in leader positions within civil society have now been detained. They have been picked up by the military and imprisoned, and some will have lost their lives during the course of these protests. Therefore, it is very challenging to isolate leadership within the community at the moment, and it is made even more difficult by the absence of information emanating from Myanmar right now.
Thank you. Deputy Clarke has been responded to and unless there are further questions, I will bring matters to a close. The fact I do not see other members offering is testament to the comprehensive manner in which Dr. Murphy has dealt with all of the questions. I thank her. As the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, we are very anxious at all times to uphold the democratic will and to ensure the wishes of the people are at all times respected. That, of course, refers to the November election in Myanmar. I ask Dr. Murphy to give us some closing commentary, after which I will bring the meeting to a close. I say to members that we may have an opportunity on Thursday to have a look in specific terms at the recommendations of Dr. Murphy and how best we might engage further. Perhaps Dr. Murphy has a closing message she would like to leave the committee with. On behalf of our members, I thank her for her very informative engagement with us this afternoon, for bringing and sharing her experience and expertise, and for furnishing us with the content of her very useful survey of the path to embracing democratic structures within Myanmar.
Dr. Mary C. Murphy:
I thank the Chairman and all members for their very insightful questions and, in particular, for their engagement on this issue, which is very welcome. I have spent recent days speaking to colleagues, one or two of whom are still on the ground in Myanmar, and others who have been working in the region.
They are colleagues I have worked with in the past on surveys we have conducted in Myanmar. All of them are devastated by the recent events in Myanmar, none more devastated than the Burmese people I worked with on the ground in Myanmar, many of whom are young people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who really began to experience freedoms and democratic stability in the past ten years or so. I cannot stress to the committee how resolute they are about meeting the challenges of the current situation, defeating the military coup and returning to the democratisation process. There is an onus on all of us and on the international community to support, recognise and assist that effort because it is the efforts of those people on the ground who wish to see a return to democracy in Myanmar that will ensure the situation stabilises.
Having said all of that, it is very important for the international community to recognise the seriousness of the crisis in Myanmar and the potential for it to become a failed state in one of the most important geopolitical and economic regions in the world. That will have consequences for all of us, even those here in Ireland on the western periphery of the European Continent.
I would offer the committee any further assistance in the future. I can speak to any of the members privately about the recommendations I have made. I can, if necessary, help to put them in contact with further witnesses or individuals within Myanmar they may wish to engage with.
I thank the members most sincerely for their time and their interest. I know that colleagues in Myanmar are watching today's event and taking heart from their interest in what is happening in the country. I hope that it will translate further into actions and a greater purpose in terms of assisting that effort in Myanmar right now.
I thank Dr. Murphy. There is a lot to be done. We will engage as a cross-party group of parliamentarians. Ireland will further engage through its Government. We can have further engagement through the EU, acknowledging the endorsement of High Representative/Vice President Burrell's welcome for the five-point consensus coming from ASEAN, as Dr. Murphy mentioned. We will continue to engage with our colleagues across the EU. Senator Joe O'Reilly is an active member of Ireland's parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe. I am sure the Council of Europe has also been engaged on this issue. Ireland, as a member of the United Nations, is making contributions on this issue, not only at the Security Council but also at the UN Human Rights Council, acknowledging the points on human rights made by Deputy Clarke.
We will come back to this issue at an early date. I thank Dr. Murphy for her assistance to this committee. I have no doubt that we will have further ongoing engagement with her but also with all of the actors involved on what is a humanitarian, political and social crisis within Asia and one that Ireland will actively engage in with a view to bringing matters to a satisfactory and democratic conclusion.
The committee is adjourned until our usual slot at 11.30 on Thursday morning when we will have a private meeting.